Mission accomplished – no gaffes. That was probably the initial reaction of Alistair Darling, Vince Cable and George Osborne to their live debate on Channel 4’s Ask the Chancellors programme. There will be no clips from this event being endlessly replayed on You Tube in coming days and weeks.
Unfortunately, the prospective Chancellors' safety-first approach also robbed the event of its drama. It was more like watching three academics debate economic issues than three senior politicians bidding for votes less than six weeks before a general election. Where were the fireworks? Where was the passion? It was all very civil and, therefore, somewhat flat.
Before the debate, Vince Cable was expected to emerge the winner and he did, though only by a narrow margin. He scored points for honesty - on several occasions he was the only one of the three men prepared to tell the audience just how bad things are. He was not attacked by the other two, though he was happy to round on both Alistair Darling and George Osborne. And he got the biggest rounds of applause, when calling bankers ‘pin-striped Scargills’ and accusing the Tories of wanting to get their ‘snouts back into the trough’.
Alistair Darling was, well, Alistair Darling. He said his main quality for the job was ‘tenacity’ and he did a dogged job of keeping the debate on the future, so avoiding having to explain why everything went wrong while Labour were in charge. But he was vulnerable to criticism about the lack of detail in his plans.
George Osborne came into the debate with a new pledge announced earlier in the day – to halt Labour’s planned rise in national insurance contributions in April 2011, a plan he will finance through government efficiency savings. While this has some electoral appeal, economists have already questioned how it can be squared with the Conservatives’ previous view that reducing the deficit was the number one economic priority and how it fits with previous Conservative descriptions of efficiency savings as fictitious. Alistair Darling and Vince Cable made these points, but neither landing a knock-out blow on Osborne.
So now it is on to the leaders’ debates. Will David Cameron make important policy announcements on the days of the debates, so he has something to focus on, as George Osborne did? Will Gordon Brown and David Cameron give Nick Clegg as easy a ride as Vince Cable enjoyed? If they do, the Liberal Democrats will emerge as winners from the debates and, assuming their target is a hung parliament, possibly in the election too.